It’s 2006 or 2007. George W. Bush is our president. I am eight or nine years old.
Uncle Dave, my mother’s younger brother by a handful of years, is my official introduction to pain, because Dave is in a great deal of pain.
Some accomplishments. He’s not drinking anymore. He’s not wetting the bed anymore.
Dave is a devoted jogger. He chain smokes. He swallows his medications in his apartment. He visits his psychiatrist in Manhattan.
He sobs. He sobs whenever he’s upset, angry, or confused. He sobs violently.
He throws things across the room sometimes, and glass shatters. He drops things, intentionally sometimes, and glass shatters.
I have always hated the sound of glass shattering. I loathe the fury behind it. When glass shatters, I am at my worst.
And, right now, I’m crying.
Dave is trying to pick me up. He’s trying to hold me. He’s trying to comfort me. He’s trying to force me into his lap. He’s grabbing at me. He’s clutching me. He’s forcing his comfort, his support, onto me, severely and earnestly.
Because he can relate. Because I think he can relate. Because he can probably relate.
I try to pull away. Towards my bedroom. Towards anything else. The opposite direction.
I am not succeeding. I am trying to push Dave away.
Don’t want him to see my tears. Don’t want him to see my fear. He’s not taking no for an answer. I have no voice.
No, no, no.
Yet, in some way, I am grateful for his presence. I am grateful for his insistence. For his deformed insight. His wrinkled Oxford shirt. His courage. There are shards of glass in my stomach.
My throat, too.
My parents are upstairs in their bedroom. Fighting about my stepfather’s heroin addiction. He didn’t inject. It was a purely nasal habit. She fails to understand that. She doesn’t get it.
My stepfather is still acting like an addicted, selfish asshole. That’s according to my mother. He’s not recovering fast enough. He’s still hiding orange juice from us. He’s still sleeping. All the time.
Dave finally captures me, and I cease struggling. He holds me tight. He reeks of Marlboro Reds. He carries me down the street. He buys me ice cream. And I eat the whole pint before dinner because just a taste is never enough.
Dave is the uncle that, years later, you might want to accuse of sexual abuse.
But, he didn’t do that. That didn’t happen. He only wiped me when I didn’t know how. He only taught me dirty words. He only let me puff on his cigarettes. When nobody was looking.
And, later on, that night….
My parents came downstairs. And we had a beautiful dinner. All of us.
Then, I brushed my teeth.
Then, I went to bed.
Six or seven years later. High school. I shared a birthday with two older soft-spoken blonde girls that were already having some sex in beds and showers. Lauren had sex in eighth grade but couldn’t finish with Zack because she felt the baby kicking already. Julia had sex on the beach in the early summer morning but didn’t remember, and Zack wouldn’t tell her if it happened. Zack would later attack Julia in the school gymnasium.
On my birthday, my friends and I are on our way to Lauren’s birthday party. She’s turning fifteen or sixteen. I am concerned I will be denied entry. I do not know how parties work. I have the worst acne of my life. I feel disfigured.
About four years later. I’m a college sophomore. Nothing’s really changed.
It’s probably best if you don’t notice me. I’m an open wound. I think it’s the way they treat me. You shouldn’t leave this dorm room. Never leave this dorm room.
Leave it, and they’ll attack you.
In my creative writing course, I am in their stories. I am in a sea of brown eyes. In my theatre course, they’re performing scenes from my life. In my philosophy course, they talk about things that I don’t understand, but it sounds like they hate me.
An American flag hangs on my dorm room wall. The stars are moving. Slowly, but sometimes quickly, too. I’m not eating. The dining hall is no longer a possibility. There are too many eyes there.
My door is always locked. I hurry to the bathroom across the hall.
I make a very half-hearted attempt. I swallow every pill in sight. I wake up in the middle of the night with the worst headache of my life.
December 23rd. My bedroom. Four o’clock in the morning.
Can’t fall asleep for the life of me. Can hear some birds outside. Freezing cold out there.
Today. Was afraid to leave the house. Thought I might run into someone I know. Someone who knows me. Didn’t want to risk it. Tonight. Ate an entire pint of ice cream. Smoked a whole pack of cigarettes. Right now. Depressed, I think. Not really sure what’s going on with me anymore.
Want to make a gesture. Don’t really want to die. Just want to hurt myself. Roll out of bed and put my feet on the floor and everyone in this house is asleep.
Upstairs. Parents’ bedroom. Their bathroom. Their medicine cabinet. Going through their dresser drawers now. Making a ruckus. Trying to find a box of Band-Aids I know exists.
Feel like a sleepwalker. Just woke up my parents. They ask me what I’m doing. Tell them I’m trying to find toothpaste, but I’m really trying to find Band-Aids.
Band-Aids? For what purpose? What’s wrong with me? Makes no sense.
The kitchen. A kitchen knife. I want to begin at my proximal forearm and I want to end at my distal forearm.
This is so hard. How do people do this? I’m not very good at this. If I want to do this, I need to be drunk, but my family doesn’t want me drinking anymore, and I just can’t break that agreement. (There’s a whole list of agreements that we’ve made—together, as a family.)
The backyard. Must be around five o’clock in the morning now. Couldn’t do what I wanted to do in the kitchen. Got too scared. Would’ve been too much to clean up. Got too lazy.
Light another cigarette. Burn myself. Several times. Feels good.
The corner store. The next night. Buying more ice cream with my brother. Gaining weight. Looking awful. My brother instructs the clerk to never sell me beer or cigarettes.
Then, he grabs my left hand, and shows it to the clerk.
“What’s this?,” my brother asks the clerk.
The clerk studies my hand. Only takes him a moment. Tells my brother that that’s the burn of a cigarette.
“Only thing it could be,” he says, pointing.
The clerk, Muhammad, says he has a friend who used to put out cigarettes on himself, too.
My friend says self-harm doesn’t count if you’re drunk. My mom says self-harm only counts if whole nooks and crannies of the body are destroyed. Should be a big secret nobody knows.
I agree with my friend.
And, I actually agree with my mother, too.
Never play with the escalator brushes.
My brother used to tell me this.
Because the brushes will hurt you. The brushes will eat your feet. If you look into the brushes, you’ll see a monster that swallows. This is my first time inside the state of Arizona, and I’m making a terrible impression, because I’m in pieces. The flight was rough, too.
At the airport, the driver holds up a sign with my name on it. He speaks to me as if I suffer from an intellectual disability. As if I can’t understand my situation.
But, it’s okay, because he’s a nice guy, an elderly man, and he’s driving me to rehab, and it’s a cliché, but everything is already shattered, and I’m in pieces.
And have I ever blown things out of proportion?
I meet Kevin in the backseat.
I’m afraid of Kevin. For some reason. But, then again, I’m afraid of everyone.
Kevin will call me a fruitcake, later, but it’s really all in good fun, and I don’t know this now.
All the hard work behind his fourth tango at rehab will not go unnoticed. He will be appropriately rewarded. Kevin will become the recipient of, rumor has it, fellatio.
Yes, oral sex, on the track, behind the pool. This is definitely against the rules. The most likely female (judging by his robust homophobia) suspect still unknown. But, this, too, will happen later. I don’t know any of this now. (Never mind that Kevin is married—to a wife who, like Kevin, has just made an attempt on her life—with three children.)
But, once again, I don’t know any of this now.
Our driver tells us where to sit. This is the beginning of my compliancy.
Kevin knows things. He knows how much an eight-ball costs. He knows about the cafeteria. He knows about snacks from the cafeteria. Which, because of the utensils, we cannot enter unsupervised.
In the car, Kevin makes several phone calls to buddies back in Spokane. The ride is an hour long, and we speak briefly, in intervals. Kevin tells me where we’re really going, and it’s a place that’s not mentioned in the brochure. It’s a place in which I will spend the better part of a week.
Kevin’s done this all before.
Kevin’s a train conductor with trauma.
We’ll be roommates for just a few nights.
I’m definitely slouching because Ativan works. (This is before I graduate to Klonopin.)
I’m in “the tank,” where patients are detoxified, stabilized, bossed around. Things happen here. Evaluations are conducted here. So much misery and bullshit here.
This is the place that’s not mentioned in the brochure. This sofa is filthy. I’m trying to read a book, but my eyes are too jumpy.
Across from me are two young men. They’re watching Marley & Me (2008). It would appear that Jennifer Aniston is not wearing a bra. They begin discussing their shared enjoyment of this fact.
Vernon, twenty-one, complains about PTSD. Vernon’s wearing his favorite T-shirt. He’s a father, with a son named John. He’s a husband, with a wife named something. He got married in Hawaii. On a yacht. A helicopter was present. His father is probably in Ireland right now. Vernon owns an auto body shop. This is what he tells us––and, what to believe? Vernon is a first responder (that’s what he says), detoxing from crystal meth. A drug I can imagine him doing and loving. This part seems truthful. Zach, Vernon’s movie partner, calls himself crazy. He’s from Kansas City. His favorite beer is Blue Moon.
This place is not working out for Zach. This place is not working out for Vernon either.
Zach is too sick for here. He leaves early, the next morning.
Vernon is a plain seizure risk. Vernon feels another seizure coming on. He doesn’t care about Jennifer Aniston’s body anymore. Zach notices that something’s wrong. He asks Vernon the following. Are you okay? Do you need water? A nurse? This is a barely audible exchange from where I slouch. Ativan works well (remember, this is pre-Klonopin), but I begin crying so hard that I fall asleep.
All the girls think Vernon’s a sweetheart from Savannah. The doctors and nurses hope for a transfer to another facility. Vernon’s been kicked out of most places, but I think his behavior is pretty good. I really don’t see any problems. Vernon’s been stuck in the tank for so long that the nurses start taking him for walks outside.
Kelly stresses me out. Kelly makes me nervous. Kelly makes me cringe. Kelly likes me.
Kelly calls me sweetheart.
Kelly talks a lot. Kelly has a crush on John. Kelly just tried sitting on John’s lap but the nurses made Kelly cut it out. Kelly smokes Marlboro Lights. Kelly asks the nurses about the stock market but the nurses don’t know anything about the stock market. Kelly complains of a kidney infection.
Kelly wears sparkly cowboy boots that glitter. Kelly wears hot pink leisure suits.
Kelly’s dad was in the Air Force. Kelly’s dad is dead. Kelly was three years old when someone started hurting Kelly and where was Kelly’s dad?
Kelly thinks Kelly is getting out of the tank. Kelly is not getting out of the tank. Kelly is not talking about crack cocaine or crystal meth. Kelly is mean to Amberlee. Kelly is mean to Amberlee because Amberlee is traumatized and won’t stop talking about it. Kelly tells Amberlee to disappear, but Amberlee does not disappear.
Kelly has two sons. Kelly has an ex-husband. Kelly’s ex-husband forced Kelly’s blue-eyed boy to beat Kelly in the kitchen but Kelly’s blue-eyed boy’s blue eyes secretly protected Kelly. Kelly has nephews who ski. Kelly’s nephews who ski work at a ski lodge. Kelly’s nephews who ski teach people how to ski.
Kelly asks Olivia if Kelly needs to be Olivia’s mommy in the tank. Kelly asks Olivia if Olivia’s mom is 51/50 because Kelly’s mom was 51/50. Kelly loves Olivia because Olivia is British and blonde and she’s been in the movies but Olivia hates Kelly because Kelly is Crazy Kelly.
Kelly is also mean to Matt.
Kelly is mean to Matt because Matt always calls his mom a cunt on the phone. You’re not supposed to say words like always, or never. Kelly is mean to Matt because the nurses caught Matt licking a page of his notebook. Matt was licking his notebook because Matt had secretly soaked some pages in liquid LSD.
Matt is from Skaneateles, New York.
Matt moved from Skaneateles to Boulder, Colorado.
Matt talks really funny. I forget how Matt learned to shoot up. Was Matt self-taught or did someone show Matt how?
Matt believes in aliens. Matt has seen a UFO before. Matt swears to God. I share air with Matt. How many summers does Matt have left?
Still at the residential treatment center in Arizona, but I’ve graduated from the tank, and I’ll return to college in Vermont eventually, and my stepfather draws for me during our family week. This is what he does for me. He draws me, my college friends. We’re stick figures. We’re supposed to be having (sober) fun. We’re playing, like little kids, on Commons Lawn. And I’m surprised he remembers what my school looks like. My parents are sleeping in a hotel a short drive from the rehab. I’m near them, sure, but I’m also far away. They’re going to remember this. They’re going to remember family week. In arguments, they’ll use this against me. In arguments, they’ll use family week against me. My parents are sitting next to people in pain, sitting across from people in pain. This is so unnecessary. My parents must think this is unnecessary. My parents definitely think this is unnecessary.
Molly won’t meet my parents. Molly’s sick in bed. Molly used to prefer longer hair, but now she wears it short. Molly prefers women to boyfriends. Molly was born in Eastern Colorado and raised in East Africa and attended an art college back where I’m from, but you can’t know which one because of confidentiality. After college, Molly moved to Los Angeles, where she was bullied by coworkers. She wears tattoos to cover the scars. I hope Molly is still alive. I really do.
Sydney is related to her mother and sister. They all look so alike. I meet her small family during her family week. They are disappointed she is here. Apparently, her room at home is a mess, apparently. Sydney is the depressed person with the best laugh. I hope Sydney is still reading on the beach.
Carly only shows up when she feels like it. Carly’s here because she swallowed sixty pills. All the men say they wouldn’t even take Carly home on a bad night because she’s ugly as sin. I hope Carly is still painting her nails. I hope Carly is still taking Hallmark cards very seriously.
Rick is a sweetheart from Memphis. He’s spent the last decade smoking very low quality marijuana in his car. His wife sometimes watches him from the windows in their apartment.
Do they ever think of me?
Because I think of them often.
I am living with other men in Los Angeles now. This is a step-down facility. They make declarations here. They say things like…. anorexic bitches are better fucks than bulimic bitches. They don’t say women. They like rub-and-tugs. They’ve gained weight on Zyprexa and Seroquel and Clozapine and Depakote. They have poor table manners. They have blowhard dads. Some have compliant mothers. They are SDSU graduates and USC dropouts. They have access to the very best pornography. They are psychotic under the influence of marijuana. They suffer from body dysmorphia. They discuss the possibilities of fasting. They love college basketball. This is all part of my treatment. What I wanted, asked for, and got. Because I needed something….
Ernest is talking to me, and I’m talking to Ernest. (This is a fact.)
If I ever have a boy, a son, I will name him Ernest. (This is not a fact.)
And, the boy standing next to us says he has a headache, but I forget his name.
I know the boy with the headache is well read, because in spite of his headache, he lets us know that he is very well read.
He wrote an essay on the possibility of cocaine-induced psychosis in Bright Lights, Big City. In high school.
His good looks are gone—this is, of course, self-reported (we just met)—and he’s gained about thirty pounds, all because of lithium carbonate. He used to act in the school plays. His family used to tell him that he was good looking. Handsome. That was before lithium.
I can’t remember his name—George?
Is Adele hot? Adele, our DBT Skills therapist? This is the topic of discussion.
Ernest would do her, he says, but, there’s also not much Ernest wouldn’t do, these days, he tells me.
Ernest and Adele do different things for me. They serve very separate roles.
For example, sometimes, during therapy, Adele will take me outside for walks around the block, if I’m feeling especially overwhelmed (whenever I lose it, in her office). She makes me count backwards. She tells me I’m not damaged. She makes me tell myself I’m not damaged.
And, surprising me, Ernest will flash me pornographic videos. The videos feature Ernest and the various women he meets on OkCupid. He brings them back to his sober apartment.
(There are so many of these videos on Ernest’s cell phone!)
Adele could be called an expert in what she does. She used to work at McLean. I ask her about ECT. They’ve got ECT at McLean. These days, I’m asking lots of people about lots of things. Especially ECT.
We wear the same brand of jeans, and she spent time at my college in her youth. She knows it’s not a sober place.
“It’s just not,” she says, with some conviction in her voice.
Ernest could not be called an expert in what he does. Ernest could not be called an expert in anything. Ernest is from Savannah, Georgia. (These days, everyone seems to be from Savannah.) He is coming straight from Cirque Lodge, a rehab in Utah. And, before Cirque, hard intravenous drugs in Athens, Georgia. And, before that, action figures in his childhood bedroom.
And, when playing with G.I. Joe dolls, he was elaborate, and contemplative.
And, when injecting drugs, he would compose grocery lists he could not execute.
I ask him questions. I ask him questions about drugs. I ask him questions about prison.
I ask him questions about living on the streets, homelessness, difficult times, etc.
Some more about Ernest. His father is suicidal because of Bernie Madoff. His father calls his therapist his “consultant.”
Ernest is thirty-five years old.
George? Liam? Seth? stands there, with me, listening to what I have to say.
And, do I actually do that to people? I don’t know, but I think that it probably happens when she tells me that I do. That I do that to people. It probably happens when she tells me that I’m staring. At her. She tells me because something about this is not eye contact. And, this could be a part of the reason why people feel uncomfortable around me. But, yeah, that’s when it happens. Or, maybe it happens when he strongly suggests that I begin attending Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meetings here, in Santa Monica. Either/or, that’s when I realize that they have the best therapists in town (another moment of clarity).
I am now officially doing my housemates’ assigned chores for cigarette money.
I am doing this because a sofa has swallowed my wallet.
I am doing this because my parents will no longer put out for a cigarette allowance.
This is because I have become a pack-a-day smoker with nothing to do.
So, I empty the ashtrays, clean the stovetop, refill the beverages, and clean the kitchen floor.
Someone has messed with the grocery list. It now reads:
- Turkey breast
- Egg whites
- Oreo/Brownie Quest Bars
- Breast Milk
- Peppered jerky
- Bag of spiders
- Pita Chips
- Almond Milk
- Roast Beef
- Anal Beads
- Trail Mix
- Penis Pump
- Corn chips
- Dark Chocolate
A former USC student explains an ex-girlfriend.
She was royalty, but not quite royalty, because his family was wealthier than hers. Not as wealthy as his, because they had to share a Ritz-Carlton bedroom with her kid brother and sister.
And, at night they would have sex on a rollaway, and the sex was rough, and, because it was rough, it was loud, and her siblings would wake up, but then fall back to sleep, and the rough sex on the rollaway would continue, and so on, and so on.
In my last rehab, in Arizona, I met Mark the Shark, or Mark S. A retired optometrist whose husband gave a young Hispanic man a Pepsi enema late one night. And, a few times in the early mornings, the boy came back for more, and they would play around with him on the optometry chair that Mark had in his home.
And, why did this happen to me?
I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person. It’s been confirmed. I didn’t hurt anyone. I can’t stand the sound of my name. I can’t look at myself in the mirror. I can hear the UCLA students on the campus. Behind the house.
He asked me why and I told him why. I say alcoholism. I say alcoholism as a homeless man is wheeled away by paramedics. My personal trainer likes drinking except for the carbohydrates.
After the gym, I run into some boys from the sober house. As we walk back to the house, it remains apparent that we have nothing in common, so there’s nothing to talk about, but we see a policeman, waiting. And, he’s been there for a while now. Dan calls him a faggot, barely, and I pay Dan five dollars to pee in his shorts in front of Sorority Row, and I’m actually not an alcoholic.
Every morning. My roommate jumps into the pool. It’s a filthy pool full of rain water, tree leaves, cigarette butts, and a deep end. The pool is cold, our bodies are pale white, and the shock is a shock, so I begin joining him. Dan is from Philadelphia?/The University of Alabama.
(His parents own a sporting goods store near Delaware.)
Dan has cannabis-use disorder and there’s something wrong with his chest. Dan is not his real name. I have a cannabis-use disorder too, but it’s mild.
Imagine: two boys wearing bright red swimming trunks in the sun-drenched Los Angeles backyard of our halfway house. A big backyard. That very cold pool. My terribly confused roommate. We smoke cigarettes. We crack dirty jokes. We sleep in our queen-size beds. This isn’t your typical halfway house. It’s really nice.
My roommate will not share a bed whenever we watch scary movies because of boundaries. We both share cannabis use disorder. We do not share his pectus excavatum. There’s something wrong with his chest.
My roommate still buzzes me, even now, all these days, weeks, months, years later. I still accept the calls.
He calls from Boulder. He calls from The University of Alabama. He does not attend The University of Alabama.
He’s in trouble. His new roommate is breaking things. Glass is shattering. His new roommate is bleeding all over their apartment. His new roommate is shooting up speedballs. One evening, after I return from Los Angeles, I am taking a shower and he calls to tell me that he should just do it. That he should just get it over with. But, I’m naked, and my mother hates a wet bathroom floor. I dry and then contact the authorities in Boulder, but I’m forgetting his last name, and I don’t know his address in Colorado.
And my parents?
My parents remove all the liquor from the kitchen and hide it in their bedroom like college students.
Because I’m home now.
Back at college. After a year of medical leave. Sitting on my bed. Pile of clean laundry next to me. Blood on my pants. Stanching a cocaine nosebleed. On the phone, describing the state of my dorm room to her. But I am not supposed to refer to her as “her,” or “she.” It is dehumanizing, she says. My mother tells me about the recent neighborhood tragedy.
My parents will drive to campus on Sunday. That’s tomorrow. They are going to help me make my room a lot better. They are going to bring me nice things. Like a lamp. Like anything they can fit into the car. I am trying to communicate this to my mother: please do not tell me about what happened to the babies near the house. But she does not hear me.
And I am looking at my pants right now. And there is so much blood. And I am so grateful she cannot see me right now. And I am so grateful she is not here.
Blood on my pants, blood on the sheets, an almost paralyzing cough, but the driver fell asleep (a new medication the body did not agree with, apparently), and the little bodies were crushed. No more blood from my nose, but there is still very much laundry to fold and the babies are gone forever.